The Siwe Project is a global non-profit dedicated to promoting mental health awareness throughout the global black community. The goal of the organization is to widen the public dialogue regarding the lived experiences of people of African Descent with mental illness. By providing opportunities for dialogue and the uplifting of new narratives and discourse, The Siwe Project aims to encourage more people to seek treatment without shame.
The Siwe (pronounced SEE-WAY) Project, based in Lanham, MD (with partner organizations being launched in London, Johannesburg and Abuja) was started by writer, Bassey Ikpi in August of 2010. Award winning writer and spoken word artist, Bassey Ikpi was diagnosed several years ago with Bipolar Disorder II. With the support of close friends, colleagues and mental health professionals, she was able to take control of her mental health and redirect her energies towards new projects and opportunities. In July 2012. Bassey’s life was deeply impacted by a tragic loss. Siwe Monsanto, the daughter of a close friend, committed suicide at the age of 15. Bassey’s emotions transformed themselves into action and The Siwe Project was born.
The Siwe Project envisions a world in which people of African descent can openly share their experiences with mental health challenges and feel supported in seeking treatment without shame.
Bassey’s deep connection to the art of storytelling is a key tool that the Siwe Project will utilize. The Siwe Project believes that sharing stories not only fosters individual healing, but community transformation. The Siwe Project will strategically use new media to cultivate safe spaces to share new stories and accomplish the following goals:
I. The creation of peer developed and directed, culturally competent mental health awareness campaigns targeting people of African descent
II. Increasing access to self-advocacy tools and resources for individuals of African descent seeking and accessing mental health treatment.
III. Providing insight to loved ones into the unique lived experiences of people of African Descent with mental illness.
by Dionne Monsanto
“Butterflies are but flowers that blew away one sunny day, when nature was feeling at her most inventive and most fertile.” –George Sand
There are so many Siwe stories to tell that I never know where to start. Afua Pili Busisiwe Ayo Monsanto was an unplanned blessing. I knew she was coming and I was ready but her father was not so she slipped in when he was not looking. I knew I was having a beautiful child with her father before she was conceived. Once she was conceived she began to rule my life and I told him, I was having a bossy girl. And that she was!
Siwe loved insects—butterflies were her favorite. At one point her favorite was the Blue Morpho butterfly. And that was what her rather intricate gourmet 6th birthday cake looked like. I ordered all the butterfly goodie bag items I could find on line. She had butterfly jewelry. We got a butterfly table top book and even a big shadow box frame with a myriad of butterflies in it. She wrote an essay in 3rd grade about a beautiful butterfly that had to break its wing to get some attention. As they say hindsight is 20/20. Now it seems clear that she knew her time would be short and she used her own methods to communicate with me but I could not comprehend that my beautiful child prodigy would live a short life of transformation.
My due date was March 8, 1996, International Working Women’s Day. My labor began on March 8th and she was born on that evening in a snow storm at 8:38pm. I will celebrate her 15 years of life in various ways, but I invite you to join me in 15 minutes of divine silence and reflection. Unplug from radio, TV, telephone, work, family, facebook, twitter, social media and email. Just be with yourself in reflection of life for 15 minutes in honor of my Siwe, who she was, is and the work she has inspired in her death. Work such as:
- Beautiful is spelled S.I.W.E, a piano concerto composed by her friend, Nkosi
- The Siwe Project, a non-profit organization conceived by my friend, Bassey Ikpi
- A beautiful piece of choreography by my friend, Nia Love
- Poems by various people
- A Movement to get POC to get support and leave the stigma associated with therapy and mental illness behind them by various people
Perhaps you can use this day to reach out to someone you love and have not connected to in a while. Perhaps that person is yourself. There are so many suicides every day, mental illness pervades our planet. An exquisite combination of her parents, her dreams and her environment, my tattoo in her honor is a butterfly. But not just any butterfly, this butterfly is a combination of a tropical Asian butterfly (papolio palinurus), an central American butterfly (parides photinus) and a tropical African butterfly (junonia oenone). It lives on the inside of my left wrist, just for me. Why a butterfly? Because she loved them, and much like a butterfly, Siwe transformed herself in each environment. But never as a chameleon. She never blended. She stood out, drew people to her with her beauty, charm and intelligence. She then sought to fix them and make them happy. New school. New personality. New nickname. She was Bubblez. Then Zippee. She lost herself and found herself. She carved a heart in her shoulder. She loved hard and lived hard. She got her ear pierced, nose pierced, and at 14 years old got 2 tattoos on her back (eye of Horus and the Sanskrit OM symbol). She cut her locs short, then off entirely. She corn-rowed them. She dyed them. She co-authored a song in Spanish in junior high school. She crocheted gifts of love. She weaved herself into her heart and colored herself anew each day.
It is a rare privilege for a butterfly to live to see the birth of her children and grandchildren. The Greeks considered them symbols of the soul’s immortality because of their transformation from pupa to butterfly. Butterflies have fascinated humans for centuries. Because of their bright colors and friendly appearance many of us often forget they are part of the insect world.
Living somewhere in between worlds was where Siwe was most comfortable too. Siwe fought vehemently for her right to be sad in a seemingly happy family. The poor Pisces water child was surrounded by fiery logical thinking Aries family members. I, her mother, think therefore I am. Siwe, my black butterfly, FELT therefore she was. NOT the easiest combination. She would use Jill Scott lyrics in her defense, “Even Jill Scott says we all cry when we feel pain.” I would counter, “Yes Siwe, but it is not ‘normal’ or healthy to feel pain EVERY day!” Siwe was prone to crying at least 40 minutes a day for seemingly no reason. It started in kindergarten. I discussed it with her teachers. They felt it was a part of her transistion to school. She “held” herself together in school and could not do it once her long day ended, and she mourned whatever tragedy she had to live through during the day. I accepted that but mourned not being able to share the happy child at home any longer.
As she grew older, more intelligent, more beautiful, more talented, she also became more sullen, complicated, teary-eyed and sad. As a performing family she put on a great show. New one new. But when the ice skating injury hit in 6th grade (patella tendonitis and bursitis) and then puberty with her menstrual cycleat 11 years old her happy performances became vignettes. She could no longer keep up the charade with the constant joint pain, menstrual cramps and PMS mania. Her first suicide attempts was at 12 years of age on 10/20/2008. A Tylenol overdose. We tried therapy, psychiatry, medication, prayer, diet change, hypnotherapy, colonics, acupuncture, et cetera, et cetera. We talked, we wrote, we traveled, we lived, we loved. We persevered. I remained hopeful. She lived for others. We switched schools. There were various hospitalizations. Siwe fought the good fight. But on June 29th, 2011 she could not do it any longer. In a moment of teenage crisis with her boyfriend she snapped. Temporary insanity does not bode well with a teenager living with depression and anxiety. She snapped. She ransacked the house for pills (all too well hidden), she went on the roof of our home. Not enough stories. She left our home, without her keys or cell phone. She slam locked the door. She found her way to the roof of a 6 story building around the corner of our home and after a conversation with the police officers, she jumped when she saw the ladder coming. I think she saw her future too clearly. Another summer in pediatric psych wards. New medications. New doctors. Guilt about the familial pressures. People have to visit her in the hospital. She loved the attention but felt guilty. I think when she saw that ladder she saw her freedom ending and took her first and last flight from the top of that 6 story building. She did not die immediately but died in the hospital as a Jane Doe while I was being questioned by the police and a social worker. This logical Aries learned to be in touch with her emotions through that wonderful willful bossy Piscean girl child. She began to transform me from her life in my womb. She continues to transform me in her various messages. When her body was being committed in the cemetery, I closed my eyes and opened them when I heard a gasp. My mother looked at me in shock. A butterfly had flown by my face. #siwelives
The last walk I took with Siwe was on June 18th in Central Park. I found myself walking that route on Saturday, March 3rd. And when I exited the park and looked up at the Museum of Natural History I saw that the butterfly exhibit was back. I was in awe. #siwelives I walked and suddenly became aware of a beautiful song I was listening to on Pandora, Butterfly Kisses by Goapale. #siwelives Siwe lived and loved hard. She accomplished so much in her 15 years. She got it all in because life is too short. I am apparently a slow learner. But I am now living the life I want to live. Thank you Siwe. INjoy, Dionne